Over the past two weeks, the 2015 Special Olympics World Games in Los Angeles has promoted the spirit of unity. That harmony was on full display last Friday when the U.S. Division 5 Boys Unified Basketball Team took home gold medals after going undefeated in all four of its games.
The team, which hails from New York, is a unified team. That means five athletes on the squad are Special Olympics athletes and five are “partner” athletes. When the team competes in the Games, there are three Special Olympics athletes playing with two “partner” athletes. The United States started their run for gold by beating Peru, 22-20. They also defeated Kenya, 20-7, and Pakistan 24-10. They played Luxembourg in the final, winning 26-12.
U.S. Coach Donna Schneider said that the team’s defense made a big difference in the games. The U.S.’s teamwork and offense were also important in its win. Star players Felix Velouz (athlete) and Yash Patel (partner) helped the team score 92 total points in the tournament. (Each game was eight minutes long).
“[The Special Olympics] was an amazing experience and a lot of fun,” athlete Kevin Green said.
After the World Games ended, partner athletes and coaches were eager to share how playing on the unified team changed their lives.
"Playing basketball for this team has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life,” partner Brendan Murphy said. “I started working with Special Olympics because I was told that these athletes needed partners to help them reach their full potential on and off the court. Now, after playing with this team for a year, I realized that us partners need these athletes in our lives just as much as, if not more than, they need us in their lives.”
Winning was great for the team, but the U.S. coaches took pride in how the games connect people. The athletes and partners played as a unit, but the games made them more like a family.
"This has made me realize how important unified sports are. It creates unity in all," coach Teresa Gilli said. Coach Kim Kaczmarek added, "For me, it has been one the proudest moments as a teacher, a coach, and a human being.”
Recognizing and accepting Special Olympic athletes were significant parts of the experience too.
“This confirmed my belief that everyone can shine,” coach Donna Schneider said. “Everyone should be celebrated. Everyone, no matter who they are, deserves to be respected and embraced.”
Photo: Donna Schneider